In a news bulletin sent out to students on Feb. 3, the College updated students about instances of coronavirus in the United States, stating that the “number of cases reported in the U.S. remains extremely low — 11 to date.” Despite the low number of cases, the bulletin went on to discuss how the World Health Organization (WHO), has declared that coronavirus is a global health emergency, and because of this, Kenyon will not have any College-sponsored travel to China planned for this semester.
On Tuesday morning, a number of health professionals from Cox Health Center and the Knox Area Hospital gave a public presentation about the spread of a novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China. The virus, first isolated by Chinese health officials in December 2019, has spread rapidly in 2020 and is responsible for 24,554 symptomatic cases, 24,463 of which are in China. Among 27 other countries, including the United States, 191 people have also contracted coronavirus. The virus produces symptoms of fever, nausea and shortness of breath, and can be spread through the air within six feet. As of Wednesday, Feb. 5, the coronavirus had taken the lives of 491 people, the vast majority of whom were Chinese citizens. The one to two percent mortality rate of the coronavirus is comparable to that of hospitalized influenza patients, although it appears significantly more infectious: Many people who contract the virus are asymptomatic, allowing them to infect other people unknowingly.
Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski and Director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith stressed that “diseases are no discriminator of person,” and therefore are inherently “not restricted to different classes of people.” Chris Smith cited his experiences as a Center for Disease Control (CDC) Ebola public health responder in Liberia as firsthand evidence that misinformation surrounding epidemics can lead to stigma and xenophobia toward victims.
Smith emphasized that strategies for protecting oneself from the coronavirus are the same approaches used to prevent the spread of many upper respiratory viruses, such as washing your hands, sleeping and covering your coughs. Facemasks are also important tools to stopping the spread of the disease. At the institutional level, the U.S. State Department and other governments are issuing emergency travel advisories for “non-essential travel to countries” to try to prevent global spread of the disease. For Kenyon, Smith notes that “the [Knox County Health] department and the hospital are our partners in really making sure we are getting abreast of this situation and responding accordingly.”
Students planning to study abroad in China were looking forward to the opportunity, but recently a number of them were informed that their programs in or around China were either suspended or cancelled entirely due to rising concerns about coronavirus. Camille Baxter ’21, an Modern Languages and Literatures major, had her study abroad plans disrupted due to the outbreak. She had been planning to go to a Middlebury program in the Yunnan province of China, in the city of Kunming.
“It’s right near the Vietnam border. Honestly, it was not close to the virus at all,” she said. Baxter was planning to leave for China on Jan. 30 to travel around and settle in before the beginning of the program on Feb. 12. But, on Jan. 29, Middlebury sent an email saying that the program had been suspended.
“I was so blindsided by it,” she said. “I thought at most it would be delayed. Even it being delayed, I was really surprised about.”
Her primary concern following the cancellation of the program was whether or not she would be able to obtain enough credits for her major at Kenyon to graduate on time. While studying abroad, all four of her classes would have counted as upper-level Chinese classes, earning her two credits toward her major.
“The department here is really small, so … I’m only able to get .75 [credits],” she said. While Baxter was able to enroll in four Kenyon classes and thinks she will still be able to graduate on time, she notes that the situation “could be a serious thing. I feel like [some people] could end up having to spend another semester here.”
She pointed out that the coronavirus has killed a very small portion of those infected and that the flu is a much bigger hazard, and expressed frustration that her plans were disrupted because of this virus.
“I could have just gone [abroad] in the fall and avoided this whole thing,” she said. “But no one could have known this would happen.”